The last year has been a strange time for everyone, but when you’re one of Ireland’s most renowned live music promoters it has proven doubly so. Leagues O’Toole, a name that most music fans will be familiar with, found himself abruptly cast adrift from his career and the live music scene that he has lived and breathed for so many years.
“I won’t lie, it’s been incredibly difficult,” he says. “When the virus first emerged, quite quickly I lost my job – as did most of my colleagues, and as did a lot of people right across the board in the music industry and the associated services.
“But at that point, we’d no idea of the longevity of the pandemic. So initially when it happened, we were all thinking: Well, before the end of the year in 2020, we’ll be back in action; we’ll have gigs up and running again and we’ll get past that period of disruption.”
Despite the lack of income, the nature of the promotion business meant that O’Toole had to continue working, rescheduling concerts and keeping the ball rolling regardless. He has also formed his own company, Foggy Notions, and plans to use it to publish literature and create podcasts, concert films and more.
There have been tough periods, but one project that helped keep his spirits up during that time was MusicTown. The festival, which was the brainchild of Dublin City Council’s arts office, was conceived to place an emphasis on live music of all genres around the capital city. O’Toole has been its creative director for the past four years. Having regrouped and refined its remit in the time of Covid – the 2020 edition was rescheduled to last September and moved online – MusicTown’s 2021 edition has trodden a similarly different path.
“Certainly, by January of 2021 we realised that it just wasn’t going to be possible to have physical audiences,” says O’Toole. “It was just unrealistic. So we asked people specifically in the open-call document for proposals to create events that were essentially going to be online and that could exist without a physical audience. It was a big ask of people, really, because creating an online event is very different to creating a normal gig or concert; you have to consider camera operators, directors, editing – all of these extra things which are very expensive.
"But, as a great testament to the resilience of creativity within the arts in Ireland, people came up with really brilliant ideas and showed a real determination."
One of the more interesting aspects of 2020’s rescheduled edition was that the programme ultimately encompassed more music-based films, enabling them to be archived for future generations.
“I think these documents will be of great benefit in years to come,” says O’Toole, “because not only are they really interesting documents about a specific subject matter, but the documents are basically telling the story of the very bizarre times that we’re living in – and also the very bizarre times that the arts are experiencing. And that’s an aspect of it that I’m really enjoying. I think in years to come, we’ll be able to look back on these events and be able to view them and say, ‘That’s how we coped, and that’s how we reacted to the situation of the pandemic.’ ”
Of course, there are challenges involved with keeping audiences engaged with livestreams, particularly after a year of seeing such performances.
"Initially, there was a period of a couple of months where every musician in the country was livestreaming acoustic performances from the garden shed on their iPhone – but it requires more than that to keep people engaged," he chuckles. "When you're sitting down to watch an event on your laptop, you're competing with Netflix, with terrestrial TV, with YouTube, and it's very hard to keep people focused – especially when they're not experiencing the actual event in person.
“So that’s where visual artists and film-makers and directors become more involved in this whole process. We needed to call upon them and ask them: ‘How can we shoot this? How can we make this look great? How can we hold people’s attention? How can we make this unusual and unique?’
"And they've had a really big role in assisting artists to do that. People like Bob Gallagher, for instance, who's been known over the past few years for making really great music videos for acts like Girl Band and Villagers. So it's been interesting that they've had more of a role in live music than they would have had before. It's really hammered home the importance of collaboration in music."
Free to view
Gallagher is one of many creators involved in this year's programme, which includes well-known names such as Cathy Davey playing a rare live show and Bell X1's Paul Noonan performing his Electric Kazoo lockdown show with his two children, as well as newcomers such as Fears, who will launch her debut album via her MusicTown show. There are shows by Crash Ensemble, a concept show about a time-travelling musician, and a collaboration between musician David Kitt and author Kevin Barry.
Shows will be broadcast from venues as diverse as Kevin Street Library to the rooftops of the city (for Rooftop Lullabies) and the Peppercanister Church – and almost all of them are free to view.
This year, urges O’Toole, it is particularly important to lend support to the creators and innovators involved in MusicTown 2021.
“We have another year of disruption ahead of us; we’ve already suffered one full year of it. We need people to come out,” he says. “We need people to talk about events, spread the word on social media. We need people to watch the events, to listen to what artists and musicians are creating now, more than ever. We need to give artists a sense of self-worth; that what they’re doing is still important, just because they aren’t necessarily able to earn any money from it at the moment.
“It’s really important that everyone pulls together. And hopefully, six months or so down the line, we can all reconvene together in rooms and we can maybe enjoy the experience with a renewed sense of appreciation for the arts in this country.”
MusicTown runs online April 15th-25th. musictown.ie